Kayfabe, Characters, and Keeping It Real: A Beginner’s Treatise On WTF Is the WWE and Why It Might Be Worth Your Time
Written by: Alexandra Smith
So here’s the thing: I used to not care about wrestling. Revised: I kind of still don’t? But I do care about the concept of wrestling and the creative processes that go into it. Not the part where two (or more) people get in a ring in front of an audience and beat each other up while people cheer. I’ve never really been into the whole bloodsport thing. I don’t care about wrestling. But what I do care about, what I have come to care about, is the construct of it, the concept of what is actually happening there, and if you like stories then you very well might come to care about it, too. Because let’s be honest: What the WWE presents is not actually a battle between two (or more) people beating the crap out of each other for an audience’s pleasure--It just plays one on TV.
On the most basic, superficial level, wrestling is fight choreography meets stunt work on steroids. The physical demands are incredible. It requires athleticism, strength, flexibility, and a lot of technique. Yes, there are plenty of times when someone does end up getting slapped for real, where a bit of soft contact staged to only look intense ends up accidentally becoming an actual punch. Concussions definitely happen and other injuries take a toll on the body. But there’s techniques for making hits look more intense than they are and ways of landing from a fall that keep everyone relatively unscathed, and when executed as intended, it’s extremely impressive. These people throw each other around the ring in the most complex fight choreo imaginable, which means that just as in any other staged violence, trust in your scene partner’s skill and professionalism is essential for safety. And some of this stuff isn’t even choreo per se, it’s more like fight improv. That’s insane! And that’s why that technique is so essential.
But none of it means anything without a story or bold characters that have won the audience’s investment. That’s the part that hooks me. Those characters are essential and if you’re new to all of this like I once was, you’re probably saying, “Duh, of course they’re characters. It’s all fake. Fake fake fake.” But like… sorta? Not really? Kind of yes? Maybe not. Ok, if you’re new, here’s some baseline notes on characters: All wrestlers have ring names. Some of them just use their real names for this purpose and some of the names are derived from identifiable nicknames, while others are just entirely made up. Some wrestlers have even changed their names, and their entire in-ring persona, through different phases of their career. “What’s with that,” you ask? Don’t ask. Just go with it. Just nod and say “yes yes yes.” Everyone has a larger-than-life persona and all you need to know to get started with a character is the energy they walk out with. Well, almost everyone has a larger-than-life persona. There’s personalities who apparently are not technically great wrestlers but who are fantastic performers and plenty who are technically excellent but boring as fuck. In summary: Technical excellence can go to the Olympics. But performance skills live in the WWE and if you don’t have both, you’re dead in the water.
So. Regardless of their name, every wrestler has a persona--a character that they maintain in the ring and even backstage to a certain extent (that’s called “kayfabe” for my newbie friends). “Even backstage?” you say. YES. Even backstage. In-character, all the time. It’s like a step-cousin of Method acting. You’re probably thinking, “But if they’re still in-character backstage, when do they get to stop? And what if their character is just their name and not different from who they actually are?” Here’s the thing: Even if their character is their actual name, that’s still a character and not themselves. But like also… not. Ok, go with me here:
Existential question: Does art imitate life or does life imitate art? I wrote an essay about this topic when I took the GRE in which I dissected reality tv archetypes and the MTV series The Real World to make a case that art and real life have an interdependent relationship. Perfect example: There’s this wrestler called The Miz, whose real name is Michael Mizanin, who actually appeared on an early season of The Real World and spent a significant chunk of his onscreen time claiming he was going to be a WWE superstar some day… and now he is precisely that. He often wrestles as part of a tag team with another wrestler called John Morrison, whose real name is John Hennigan. This guy was a contestant on the reality TV show Survivor and although this was after he was established in the WWE, he competed as himself and is billed there as John Hennigan.
Pretty clear, right? They appeared on reality tv shows as themselves with their real names and they appear on the WWE as characters. But the truth is that the WWE blurs the lines between kayfabe and reality for storytelling benefit all the time. This year at Wrestlemania, The Miz and John Morrison faced off against up-and-coming wrestler Damian Priest and his tag team partner… Bad Bunny. Yes, THAT Bad Bunny. Grammy Award-winning, multi-platinum hip hop artist Bad Bunny. A real guy with an established career outside of the world of the WWE, and millions of fans around the world--and a stage name, for what it’s worth.
There ended up being a whole damn storyline in which Bad Bunny became the holder of the 24/7 championship. What’s that? All you need to know is that Bad Bunny got himself a temporary title and took the belt onstage when he performed as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live in between playing out scenes on weekly episodes with the WWE. And really, it’s not like he could tour, so why the hell not meld fiction and reality for a few weeks and get to live his childhood dreams in the process? Benito Antonio Martinez Ocasio got to train for the WWE, learn all that technique used to create the moments of “how’d they do that?” and go on television and be “Bad Bunny: WWE Superstar” for a few weeks. To help push this storyline forward, The Miz and John Morrison performed a diss track mocking Bad Bunny in advance of Wrestlemania. That officially made this shit a full-on MUSICAL. Was Benito Antonio Martinez Ocasio legitimately in a feud with Michael Mizanin? Of fucking course not. But Bad Bunny vs. The Miz made for some damn good tv and if you ask Bad Bunny about any of it, you better believe he’s going to compartmentalize and stay in kayfabe on the realness of that storyline.
Meanwhile, Mercedes Varnado is a wrestler whose ring name is Sasha Banks. Sasha’s entrance music is performed by the rapper Snoop Dogg. Snoop Dogg’s real name is Calvin Broadus, Jr. and Calvin Broadus, Jr. just happens to be the cousin of... one Mercedes Varnado. You follow?
The main event of night one of Wrestlemania this year was Sasha Banks vs. Bianca Belair and this was a huge deal. It was huge because the main event was two women. It was huge because it was two Black women. It was huge because these women are serious athletes who yes, look super glam doing their thing, but also represent a distinct stylistic shift from the dated Barbie image that still dominates the women’s division. And as the two faced off in the ring, Bianca held back tears as she took it all in. She and Sasha made eye-contact and the immensity of that moment was strikingly clear as Sasha had to look away to keep herself together and stay in kayfabe. For just a moment, it wasn’t about “The Boss” taking on “The EST,” it was about two powerful, hardworking women at the top of their game and the importance of representation. For just a moment, being cheered by thousands of people, these two women let it actually be real and the result was some momentary cracks in the wall between actual reality and the “reality” of the WWE storyline. I don’t care what anyone else says: This was the most compelling moment of the entire Wrestlemania weekend.
Although the women are being taken increasingly seriously and are getting more interesting storylines, I’ll confess my dismay that the priority is often still a lot of hair-flipping, a lot of nails, and a lot of posing. You cannot deny that these women are skilled performers, but storywise, there’s unfortunately a heavy lean on feuds between former “best friends,” uncreative rivalries that don’t develop beyond basic “I’m the best and you suck” trash talk, and honestly, a lot of hair-pulling. Giving the women a crack at some of the more creative modes of storytelling is something that would probably get me to watch more often. Where’s the women’s diss track? Why couldn’t one of the women do a satirical super-pac ad instead of the one that went to Seth Rollins? This is why I so deeply enjoy appearances from Billie Kay, who’s essentially the one comedy wrestler on the women’s roster. Her entire gimmick mocks the side-piece image of the valets (essentially, the hot arm candy for male wrestlers of yesteryear) and the primping and posing of the WWE Divas era. Sure, Billie Kay will pull someone’s hair as she tries to embody a bygone image of what a woman in wrestling was “supposed” to be, but she’s going to do it in a way that’s so exaggerated and intentionally awkward that it highlights the absurdity of those conventions and how much things have evolved. It’s actually a brilliant character and I wish there was more opportunity to use her in an intentional way to help move the women’s division forward and generate some more creative storylines. From where I stand, keeping Billie Kay on the mid-card is a missed opportunity.
Now, it’s also worth noting that there’s a few different kinds of characters that coexist in this one storytelling world and that can make things feel complicated. Some of the WWE’s characters are just swaggering cartoon versions of themselves (see: AJ Styles, Roman Reigns, Shane McMahon). Some are playing with archetypes (see: John Cena, Asuka, Rhea Ripley, Sammi Zayn). A lot of the women are strong and skilled but have that early-90s-glamazon-Barbie thing going on (see: Charlotte Flair, Carmela). But there are also characters who have weird supernatural shit layered on. Historically, that’s The Undertaker and Kane, but now The Fiend and Alexa Bliss are holding down down the corner that’s a haunted house come to life.
And this is all totally accepted as reality within the WWE storyline universe, which probably has you saying “But! But! But!” But nothing. But stop. Stop asking questions. Too many questions is just going to make you more frustrated. Just go with it. The everyman vs. the force of supernatural evil is a classic storyline! Knowing that The Fiend and Alexa Bliss would be appearing in Wrestlemania to take on Randy Orton, I was ready to just go with it, whatever bizarre stuff was going to happen. Not that Randy is an “everyman” per se, but to call The Fiend and Alexa Bliss “creepy” would be an understatement (really, go on YouTube and watch all the episodes of “Firefly Fun House” and learn about the transformation of these characters from their previous personas). In the midst of a bunch of human beings engaging in bloodsport, the supernatural characters bring suspense and theatricality. The build-up to The Fiend vs. Randy Orton gave us ritual and ceremony! It gave us set pieces and props! It gave us sound effects and music! It gave us The Fiend entering the ring by popping out of a massive wind-up box! And then the bell rang... and a fairly conventional WWE match happened. The Fiend also lost rather quickly and unremarkably. Yes, the whole thing was lit entirely in red. Yes, there were pyrotechnics. Yes, The Fiend got distracted by Alexa Bliss oozing black sludge from her head. But it’s not unusual for there to be an outside-the-ring distraction that causes someone to make a fatal error and lose their match because of it. After this match, my partner James (aka “Captain Context” of our team at The Big Times) went on a solid rant about how The Fiend has lost so many times that he’s not scary anymore and the character has been sort of undermined. And it was a bummer to see a standard WWE storytelling convention be used to make him lose here.
Sooooo… can we now send Alexa Bliss back to the women’s division, still in this character, for evil playtime with the Barbies? That would be cool.
Listen: I’m not watching wrestling every week because, as I said, I’m not into the blood sport stuff. But I do keep some ongoing awareness of major plot points that are happening week-to-week (remember the times before binge-watching was possible and you had to wait a week to see what would happen next on your tv shows?). When the big events come along, I’m down to carve out some time. And if nothing else, the continued blurring of the lines between the fantasy of kayfabe and actual reality keeps things exciting, and makes the world of the story even more expansive. In the end, it’s not enough to script out who’s going to win a match and how that win is going to drive the storyline--someone needs to go in the ring and execute it. And those someones are still human beings who mess up sometimes. It’s still a live performance and unexpected things happen. And if you gotta improv your way out of something, well, then whatever the story consequences, task #1 is the same as in any live theatre: Just keep it going. And isn’t that worth a small piece of your attention?
Shane McMahon is the worst. Full stop.
AJ Styles has GREAT hair.
The New Day are consistently an absolute delight.
Alexa Bliss needs to stay creepy and keep bringing the theatricality.
We also need more comedy for the women. Billie Kay can’t do it all by herself.
Sasha Banks is a Legit Boss and I’m devastated that she lost.
Bianca Belair is EST and I’m so happy that she won.
Sasha’s still my girl, though. #BostonRepresent
Amended to note that in the time since Wrestlemania, Billie Kay has been released by the WWE. This is a crime and I am enraged.